The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Charles Ginner, ‘Neo-Realism’

The New Age, 1 January 1914, pp.271–2.

By Charles Ginner.
All great painters by direct intercourse with Nature have extracted from her facts which others have not observed before, and interpreted them by methods which are personal and expressive of themselves – this is the great tradition of Realism. It can be traced in Europe down from Van Eyck and the early French primitives of the Ecole d’Avignon. It is carried through the dark period of the Poussins and Lebruns by Les Frères le Nain; in the eighteenth century by Chardin; in the nineteenth by Courbet and the Impressionists, and unbroken to this day by Cézanne and Van Gogh. Realism has produced the “Pieta” of the Ecole d’Avignon, the “Flemish Merchant and Lady” of Van Eyck, the old man and child of Ghirlandajo at the Louvre, “La Parabole des Aveugles” of Breughel (Le Vieux), the ‘‘Repos de Paysans” of Les Frères le Nain. Greco, Rembrandt, Millet, Courbet, Cézanne – all the great painters of the world have known that great art can only be created out of continued intercourse with nature.
It should be our endeavour to maintain this tradition through this present dark period of bad “Academism” – the result, as ever, of the adoption by weak or commercial painters of the creative artist’s personal methods of interpreting nature and the consequent creation of a formula; it is this which constitutes Academism. The further they go the more they see only this formula, and, losing all sight of nature, become Formula-machines. Art goes then from bad to worse; through the history of Art we see this continually. It has resulted in the decadence of every Art movement. We have the downfall of Egypt, the downfall of Greece, and the bad art of Rome. The Italian Renaissance going to Rome and not to nature ended in the quagmire of Giulio Romano, Carracci, etc. Poussin, Lebrun, and others, going to the Italian Renaissance, stultified French Art for hundreds of year [sic] until it finally ended in the “débacle” of Bouguerau, Gérome, of the British Royal Academy, and of those of all the nations.
It is this shrinking from the Life around them, this hunting after a something as remote from life as possible, this race for Formula-Illusions, which destroys Art.
The creative power has always been realist. We can take as examples the early Egyptians, the early Greeks, the early Italians, the early French, the early Flemish.
The Academic painters merely adopt the visions which the creative artists drew from the source of nature itself. They adopt these mannerisms, which is all they are capable of seeing in the work of the creative artist, and make formulas out of them.
They are copyists. They are the poor of mind.
But in this article I wish to deal with our own times, with the Art of to-day.
The old Academic movement which reigned at Burlington House and the Paris Salon counts no more. In these precincts it has been replaced by a Naturalism just as bad, but which I will speak of anon.
There is a new Academic movement full of dangers. Full of dangers because it is disguised under a false cloak. It cries that it is going to save Art, while in reality it will destroy it. What in England is known as Post-Impressionism – Voila [sic] l’ennemi! It is all the more dangerous since it is enveloped in a kind of rose-pink halo of interest. Take away the rose-pink and you find the Academic skeleton. There are several forms of painting which I understand to be included under the journalistic term “Post-Impressionism.” One is the adoption of a formula founded on the special interpretation of nature we find in Cézanne the Realist. He felt nature simply and interpreted it accordingly by dividing the object into separate simplified planes of colour which strengthened the feeling of solidity and depth and gave in certain cases a cubistic appearance to the depicted objects. His words that the forms of nature “peuvent se ramener au cône, au cylindre et à la sphère,” was simply his mode of expressing his feelings of simplified nature.
The Post-Cézannes adopted this superficial aspect of his work without searching into the depth of his emotions and his mind, and created a formula.
Cubism is a development of Post-Cézannism.
Besides Cézannism and Cubism there is another form of Post-Impressionism of which exactly the same may be said: that of Matisse and his followers. Matisse hunts up formulas in Egypt, in Africa, in the South Seas, like a dog hunting out truffles. The formula once found ready made, the work is easy. The smaller Matisse fry find it even easier, as they have not the trouble of hunting.
The Matisse movement is a misconception of Gauguin as the rest of this Post-Impressionist movement is a misconception of Cézanne. Gauguin, who had a strong romantic touch, went to the South Seas and painted the South Sea islanders. Out of this a Post-Gauguin school arose, of which Matisse would seem to be the most important development. Out of Gauguin’s Romantic Realism and his personal interpretation Matisse and Co. created a formula to be worked quietly at home in some snug Paris studio, as far away as possible from the South Seas or any other exotic country.
And so we come to my point that Cézannism and Gauguinism, i.e., Post-Impressionism, are academic movements as preached in England, being Art based on formula.
To Art, Academism means Death.
Every new Post-Cézanne, Post-Gauguin, or Post-Cubist will get worse than his predecessor as he gets further and further away from the light. The brain ceases to act as it ceases to search out its own personal expression of Nature, its only true and healthy source. Lying with ease on a bed of formulas the brain becomes dull and the Art becomes bad.
To this new Academism, which will eventually destroy Art, already so sorely tried by a recent bad Academic movement, we must oppose a young and healthy realistic movement, a New Realism, i.e., “Neo-Realism.”
But that the conception of Realism, more especially that of Neo-Realism, may not be confounded with the Naturalism of Burlington House, I will say a few words about this dying naturalistic movement.
Naturalism is a kind of poor relation of Realism. It is the production of a Realist with a poor mind. A mind that goes to search out and reveal the secrets of Life and Nature, but has not the power to find. Naturalism is the photography of Nature. The Naturalist, with infinite care, goes out to her and copies the superficial [end of p.271] aspect of the object before him. He only sees Nature with a dull and common eye, and has nothing to reveal. He has no personal vision, no individual temperament to express, no power of research. Nature remains a mystery to him in spite of all his work. Plastic Art then ceases, the decorative interpretation and intimate research of Nature, i.e., Life, are no more. It is in the R.A. that the last embers of this short-lived Naturalism are burning out.
Having given a summary of the place Realism holds with regard to Academism and Naturalism, I will try and develop the ideals that must guide Neo-Realism, the New Realism that is to oppose the headlong destructive flow of the New Academism, i.e., Post-Impressionism.
The aim of Neo-Realism is the plastic interpretation of Life through the intimate research into Nature. Life and Nature are the sources of the greatest variety. The artist who, with his personal ideal, his personal vision of nature and attitude towards life, makes an intimate study of what is round him is bound, even if he has not a strong individuality, to reveal an interesting work. Formula, on the other hand, being especially destructive to the smaller minds.
When this method of intimate research has been followed we find that the infinite variety of colour, pattern and line which is to be found in Nature and the arrangements evinced by them under the artist’s personality “create a whole which is a decorative composition.” This resulting decorative composition is an unconscious creation produced by the collaboration of Nature and the Artist Mind. A striking example of this unconscious decoration is to be seen in the works of the most intense of modern Realists, Vincent Van Gogh. A room at Bernheim’s private house in Paris hung only by works of this great realist (who confessed to Gauguin that he could not work from imagination) makes one of the finest decorative wall-spaces I have ever seen.
A decorative formula tends to fall into monotony. The individual relying on his imagination and his formula finds himself very limited in comparison with the infinite variety of Life.
It is a common opinion of the day, especially in Paris (even Paris can make mistakes at times), that Decoration is the unique aim of Art. Neo-Realism, based on its tradition of Realism, has another aim of equal importance, a message deeper than the simple decorative Ideal, and on which it relies for its greatest strength. It must interpret that which, to us who are of this earth, ought to lie nearest our hearts, i.e., Life in all its effects, moods and developments. Each age has its landscape, its atmosphere, its cities, its people. Realism, loving Life, loving its Age, interprets its Epoch by extracting from it the very essence of all it contains of great or of weak, of beautiful or of sordid, according to the individual temperament. Realism is thus not only a present intimate revelation of its own time, but becomes a document for future ages. It attaches itself to history.
Neo-Realism must be a deliberate and objective transposition of the object (man, woman, tree, apple, light, shade, movement, etc.) under observation, which has for certain specific reasons appealed to the artist’s ideal or mood, for self-expression. When the artist is carried away by an intense desire to interpret an object or an agglomeration of objects, the only sure means at his disposal to find and express that unknown quantity in the object which raised his desire, mood, or ideal, and which united his inner self with the aforesaid unknown quantity, is a deliberate research, concise study and transposition. It is only this intimate relation between the artist and the object which can produce original and great work. Away from this we fall into unoriginal and monotonous Formula.
Now let us consider Neo-Realism from a technical standpoint.
Which is the latest and most important realistic movement? It is unquestionably the impressionist movement in France.
The Impressionists, by their searching study of light, purified the muddy palettes by exchanging colour values for tone values, and thus strangely brought modern painting nearer to the great works of the Primitives; and they further revealed what till then seemed an unknown quantity: Light in Nature. This was an important discovery that no modern painter could afford to neglect, and the Neo-Impressionists pushed their study further and succeeded in relating Impressionist painting to Science. But with their eyes entirely fixed on this scientific study of colour and neglecting to keep themselves in relationship with Nature they began gradually to sink into the Formula Pit. On the other hand, we find Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, all three children of Impressionism, learning from it, as a wholesome source, all that it had to teach, but keeping their minds and ideals open and independent, and with their eyes fixed on the only true spring of Art: Life itself. By this direct intercourse with Nature they brought out of Impressionism a new development by creating a personal Art and self-expression. So much so, that we have had learned, but short-sighted, men in France, Germany, and England demonstrating, amidst much noise, that these three painters were a reaction against impressionistic realism.
Far from being a reaction they were the very outcome, as stated above, the very development of it. They knew and that is what they have taught us, that great Art can be generated by the artist only through continued renewal with Life.
No masters could be further apart from each other than Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and yet all their teaching is the same. Neo-Realism must take to heart the lesson so strikingly demonstrated by the comparison between the failure of the Neo-Impressionists, who created a formula out of Impressionism, and the success of the three French modern masters. Let those who are making a formula out of Cézanne or Van Gogh get entangled in the formulas and fall, only he who takes from Cézanne or Van Gogh that which he finds in them relating to Nature and not that which is merely personal to themselves will ever produce an original and great work of Art.
This deliberate research by the artist into Nature, this collaboration, this objective transposition must necessarily bring with it good and sound craftsmanship, a thing sorely lacking in these days. Of whatever interest a sketch may be as expressing a fleeting note, a mood, an “état d’âme,” it can only be a small part of what the artist has in him to say. A pictorial work of Art must be a complete expression of the artist in relation to Nature, and must result in a strong and solidly built up work to be of any lasting purpose. Good craftsmanship must be the natural result of a strong, forcible, and deliberate self-expression. An artist who cannot go beyond a sketch is but a poor artist. Neo-Realism by its very ideals finds itself opposed to the slap-dash, careless, and slick painting which has been and is still so much in vogue.
The good craftsman loves the medium and the tools he uses. The real painter loves his paint as the sculptor his marble, for it is through these mediums that he reveals himself, is himself, and finds all his joy. In the great artist one must feel revealed, his love and passion for the medium with whose help he works to create the Art resulting from his desire to express those emotions awakened in him by Nature and Life around him.
Furthermore, in this matter of medium, it is only out of a sound and solid pigment that good surface and variety can be got, and durability in the ages to come.
Neo-Realism means intimate study of Nature, deliberate objective transposition, good craftsmanship, and a love of the medium. These, with a continued renewal with Life, i.e., collaboration of the Artist and Nature, must result in a strong, individual, and interesting interpretation of Life.
Neo-Realism must oppose itself to slave-ridden formula and be creative.

How to cite

Charles Ginner, ‘Neo-Realism’, in The New Age, 1 January 1914, pp.271–2, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 14 April 2024.